Words are thoughts with their clothes on!

English: Dr. Martin Luther King giving his &qu...

Dr. Martin Luther King giving his “I Have a Dream” speech during the March on Washington in Washington, D.C., on 28 August 1963. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A couple moved into an old house and – so far, so original – began to notice that there seemed to be something unseen dashing about their living room every now and then. This ‘thing’ had a traceable trajectory around the room every time it appeared. For example, the coffee table would wobble, then the door shuddered, then a cushion depressed in the middle, then the curtains wafted sideways.

The intrepid couple decided that this was some ‘thing’ that it might be possible to catch. So one evening, when the rampage started, they followed the trail and managed to catch a little ‘thing’. It was totally invisible but they could get their hands round it and feel it, a little see-through ghost. Enter a packet of Play-Doh.

While one held the piece of air, the other stuck bits of Play-Doh over the surface of whatever it was. Hey presto, they finally revealed the shape of a little, struggling pig!

I was reminded of that story when I was watching a young child pouring over a very elementary reading book, brought home from school. The child was feeling her way along the letters, mouthing the sounds until the words made sense in her head. Expertise with language is such an elementary skill. Perhaps we do not realise how we impoverish our children by allowing them to ‘get by’ with poor vocabulary, undisciplined grammar and a poverty of expression.

Like that little rampaging pig, thoughts are invisible. Words are thoughts made visible. Words are the clothes (the Play-Doh) that thought must put on to be useful, meaningful and shared. I believe oratory used to be taught in schools as a discrete subject, training in how to explain, describe, enthuse, lead and inspire. Will anyone who has heard it ever forget Martin Luther King’s “I have dream” speech?

If our children and young people can’t put their thoughts into words, they are hugely disadvantaged in reaching their own potential by extracting from their heads the thoughts that stir them, make them passionate and impact on the world they live in.

They are living with an invisible pig!

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The Hairy Backside!

English: penulis = writer

English: penulis = writer (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Every writer says it; every writer knows it; every writer does it!

Just listening to people around you is sooo useful. Sometimes I think my ears must be out on waggling stalks as I try to catch some interesting bit of conversation just within hearing. Then the next challenge is trying not to look like some sinister stalker (sorry, pun unintended) while I write it down. Not that I normally look like a sinister stalker… I hope!

But I heard a cracker yesterday. I was walking through Belfast and two young men in jeans walked past me. This was the snippet I heard:

“Aye, you know the ins and outs of the job, but he wants you to know the hairy backside as well.”

When I was in hospital some years ago, a nurse was trying with difficulty to squeeze between a bed and a medicine trolley. She said (and you have to imagine a broad Belfast accent):

“Ye can suck yer belly in but yer ass goes nowhere.”

I nearly had to go back to theatre to get my stitches back in!

In Maker of Footprints, I used a real snatch of conversation which I felt just suited the tension of the moment between the two main protagonists:

“A mother and two children came close to the edge of the pond. There was a boy of about four and a little girl of two. The girl held a whole slice of bread in one plump hand and a large purple soft toy under the pink sleeve of her other arm. She teetered and her mother gripped her shoulder, bending to her. Anxiously she asked, “Would you like mummy to hold your heffalump?”

That really happened in a park near me and it was so useful in evoking a contrast of emotion within a highly charged, pivotal scene.

I’d love to hear of any other gems that writers picked up and were able to use at just right moment!

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Women are people too! Equality in the 21st century

"Equal rights for everybody!" - This...

There’s a lot of ‘equality’ going on.

What with the issue of women bishops, same-sex marriage and marital coercion, it’s difficult to define exactly what ‘equality’ is. I am not equal to my husband and that is just a fact. But then, my husband is not equal to me either. Being equal in value as a person is not the same as being equal in everything else.

For example, I have to bear the children and that impacts on my body, my days, my emotions and my world view. I believe that maternal love is the strongest, fiercest emotion in the world and differs from the love of a father. We are not equal in that.

Today I saw a trailer for a course for women in business. Forgive me, but I have been a woman in business, having been the co-founder of a successful business. As I went through an enterprise course for would-be entrepreneurs, I did not notice that accounts, sales techniques, employment issues etc were entirely single sex matters.

I used to subscribe to a magazine for women writers. I stopped my subscription because, as a writer, I want to keep company with humanity, not just half of it.

Visiting a male relative in hospital, he told me how he appreciated the care of all the nurses, but that it was particularly comforting to have a male nurse in whom he could confide. There were only two. All nurses are equal in their value, but in the justifiable hailstorm against discrimination, are we not in danger of diminishing, discouraging and belittling one of society’s best assets, our men?

Nursing and teaching are two of the areas in which there has been an increasing disproportion in the numbers of men and women. Schools desperately need more male teachers. In one school, for example, there are five women teachers for every male teacher. Should authorities, councils, government bodies, not spend money on attracting more men into work that is becoming too female dominated, such as teaching? The feminisation of society is ill-advised.

In our current society where broken families are becoming more and more common, our boys and young men desperately need men they can look up to and be influenced by. How do we teach our teenagers just what it means to be a responsible man today? This isn’t an argument for inequality of opportunity. It is recognising that equality needs to be nurtured or it becomes inequality once more.

As a woman and an employee, I never encountered discrimination in the workplace. I appreciate that other women have, and that is wrong. But it is also wrong to treat women as so weak they need a helping hand. To know that I had been awarded a job on the grounds of my gender would be as insulting to me as if I had been refused it on the same grounds. As an employer, I look for the best person for the job. They may be male, female or neither; black, pink, purple or striped.

The only place I have seen rampant discrimination is in some churches – and I must exclude my own church, the Methodist, where for many, many years, there has been mutual respect and co-operation. Our All-Ireland President next year is a woman, Rev Dr Heather Morris.

Equality is not uniformity. It is the happy, wonderful, exhilarating celebration of our difference and our respect for each other. Are we primarily men and women, or are we all just people who are amazingly, attractively, different?

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Love is: never going back to yesterday

As a student in 1969, I was full of the exciting possibilities of life ahead. I could not know then that the troubles that started in Northern Ireland would be the background for my studies, my work, my marriage and my children’s entire school lives.

Despite the accompaniment of explosions, tears, suffering, murder, and the blackness of the abominations of those times, the goodness in people also shone as a lighthouse in the black ocean. We cannot know opposites unless we know the extremes and so I learnt about goodness, love and hope because of the badness, hate and despair.

Recent events have made me pray that goodness and love and hope are still as strong as they were then and that the new generation, which includes my grandchildren, will never have to swim through such misery and fear as there was then.

When two people whom I love very much, one Protestant, one Catholic, were getting married they asked me to write a poem for them. This is it, written as if we watched these two, from our respective sides of the church.

For M and M on their Wedding Day

is you and you
standing here together.

And love
is us and you
here together with you,

For love
is all of us
here together bound,

A love
that starts with us
and shines from us.

A love
to heal this place
must start with us

For love
is never going back
to yesterday

And love
Is all our hope
for your tomorrows.

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What’s so weird about total abstinence?

A Kranz (wreath) of Kölsch beer.

When I was a student, there was a drinking den in the alleyway at the back of our flat, between our street and the next. The nightly activities were a cause of disturbance to us and others.

One day I mentioned it to a policeman. I went home for the weekend. When I came back, my bedroom window was distributed in shards over my bed and there was a brick on my pillow.

Actually, I suppose I was lucky that was all that happened to me.

The tentacles of alcohol have not become any less disgusting – or frightening. A great night out, for some, will bring a hangover and a dry tongue. For others it will be the advent of bereavement at the bumper of some drunken idiot who thinks he’s invincible. For them it will be an advent with no Easter to follow.


Table taken from “Scoring drugs”, The Economist, data from “Drug harms in the UK: a multi-criteria decision analysis”, by David Nutt, Leslie King and Lawrence Phillips, on behalf of the Independent Scientific Committee on Drugs. The Lancet. Nov 2011.

The range of non-alcoholic drinks is wider than ever before yet it is a startling fact that 9% of men and 4% of women are dependant on alcohol. (Source)

That is hugely more than are hooked on all other drugs put together, including prescription drugs. Think about that. Note the top entry on the table on the left.

“Around 23,000 alcohol-related incidents such as street fights, bar brawls, breaches of the peace and drunk and disorderly conduct take place in the UK every week. More than half of all violent crime is committed by offenders who are drunk and more than a third happens in and around pubs and clubs”. (Source)

‘Alcohol-related crime’ is a colourless phrase. Let’s paint in a few brush strokes. Alcohol Concern reckons that alcohol misuse costs the NHS £3.17bn a year. It is the direct cause of 76,000 facial injuries (paint the scars). Every week, 100 children call Childline because of fear of abuse from alcohol-fuelled parents (paint the bruises). 920,000 children in the UK are living with one or two parents with a drink problem (paint the tears). Google the statistics on the connection between alcohol and rape (paint the screams). In Northern Ireland, 60% of suicides have strong links to alcohol misuse (paint the grief).

Think about what drunken adults are capable of doing to children. Older children can run; older children can use a telephone. Babies just have to take what’s coming. Read the headlines.

Take the case of Robby (not his real name). He’s three years old yet has already become acquainted with the A&E department. Last time he had a broken arm. His listless mother told the doctor he had fallen down the stairs. A half-truth. He had been flung down the stairs by his father in a drunken rage, while his mother hid under the stairs, terrified.

Other marks on Robby’s small body told the medical staff quite a terrible story. Robby is now a statistic. Somebody else made him one. His dad just has to sleep it off and wake up to wonder why his son has a plaster on his arm.

If the plight of our children will not make us rethink our attitudes to alcohol, we are beyond redemption.

Socially, the arrogant acceptance of the universality of alcohol consumption is breath-taking. Last Christmas, one hotel offered a free bottle of wine at every table. An unobtrusive request for the free alternative provoked a crisis in the management. After muttered consultations the guests were told that it was wine or nothing, even for those driving. To be fair, this situation may be improving.

Occasional and total abstainers actually have taste buds and don’t appreciate the jugs of water or – what a treat! – orange squash provided by those who make the intellectual leap of realising they are confronted by someone who really doesn’t want the wine. Would a vegetarian be treated like this? Would a vegetarian have meat placed in front of him and, if he objected, have a lettuce leaf impatiently tossed in his direction?

Alcohol is a drug to be classed with all the other drugs that are dehumanising us. To the husband of the woman severely brain damaged after being hit by a motorbike driven by a drunk, there isn’t much macho snigger value in the sight of a legless yuppie.

You won’t go to hell if you have the odd binge. Other people might.

And if someone wants to be an alcohol-free zone, have the guts to respect them – maybe even have the guts to join them.

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Fiction versus Faith?

Alice Cooper, American rock singer. Taken at t...

Alice Cooper, American rock singer. Taken at the 2007 Scream Awards (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

As a writer, I find it absorbing to investigate the grey areas of life; to look at the human condition and to subject it to stresses that impinge on ethical and moral dilemmas. Religious belief informs the behaviour of many people today and I think it is legitimate to explore how this can make life more complicated.

I’ve been thinking a lot about this lately because I am working on a novel in which the main  male character is a Christian. There are many novelists who write overtly Christian stories, but I like to look at things another way – from the other side, as it were. There are people of faith all around us, in the world that is the novelist’s seed bed. They may be Hindu, Muslim, Jewish,  Christian, even atheist. Perhaps it is time, in a decade of increasing scepticism and even lampooning of Christianity, to look seriously at secular fiction that traverses events and relationships through the prism of Christianity. I’m reminded of the rock singer Alice Cooper (above) who said: “Drinking beer is easy. Trashing your hotel room is easy. But being a Christian, that’s a tough call. That’s real rebellion.”

Is it?

This reminds me of a short story I wrote some time ago. Here it is if you’ve time to waste!


Willy Mac

The tail end of his ear, tuned finely to the dark streets, caught the faintest clink. Instinct took him striding to the corner, bellowing as he went:

“Willy Mac! put that down right now!”

“God, Rev! Ye scared me!”

Three doors down, a small bent figure had frozen on a step, an empty milk bottle dangling from one hand. The shadowed gloom, unaffected by the dim street lighting, hid the grubbiness of the face, and the miserable inadequacy of the tattered jumper and battle-scarred jeans. But somehow, two live sparks glowed out of eyes turned towards the Rev Kenneth Jones as he bore down upon the boy.

“Willy Mac, I told you two nights ago to stop pinching milk bottles.“

“But Rev, it’s for me ma. She’s not well. She’s got these flowers and has nothin’ to put them in. It’s for her, honest.“

Continue reading

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Write the beginning at the end (and other stuff!)

This is my cat Fudge. She’s a smart cat. She has, for example, learnt how to operate the cat flap. It took her many nights of scratching, pulling, poking and persistence but she triumphed in the end. One thing she learnt on the day this photograph was taken is that you fall off window ledges if you roll around on them. It’s called ‘experience’.

Persistence and experience are vital qualities to bring to writing. Here are some of the lessons I have learnt along the way.

  • Squirrel away anything that happens to you that may be of use. Make notes on anything you hear that might be useful source material later. For example, a friend of mine told me about the night her son was mugged. She described how she felt as a mother and how her son vividly described the assault. Later, I wrote down in a notebook what she had told me. This became an authentic source for me to draw on in one of the incidents in Maker of Footprints.
  • Get the details right. This is one of the things that keeps me awake at night! In the novel I’m writing at the moment, a park in Belfast plays a significant part throughout. I visit this park every couple of months to keep a detailed record of what plants are in bloom, what trees are in fruit, what stage the rose garden is at. Remember also the intangible things – what scents are in the air at certain times of the year? What are the prevalent noises? Would I have noted the scrape of a groundsman’s shovel and cart unless I had been there? This is all important for painting the picture for the reader.
  • Speaking of noting things, my notebook is stapled to me! So many times, I forgot the exact phrase someone used, the idea that popped into my head, the feel of a sudden emotion. So now I write it down, or record it as an audio memo (specially good if it’s raining! Soggy pages aren’t easy to read.) Even if I have used audio, I transcribe memos into a notebook and index them for ease of retrieval.
  • One of the best things experience taught me is to stop reading the ‘How to’ books. When I was scribbling down notes for Maker of Footprints I read everything about how to write. I just loved seeing another book on how to create memorable characters, how to use dialogue to reveal character, how to deal with ‘sagging middles’. In the end I sold all the manuals on eBay and just wrote.
  • I sat so long worrying about how to start telling the story of my characters that they very nearly had no life at all! I have learnt not to sweat the beginning of a novel. In fact, it is much better to write the beginning as the last thing you do. Why? Because you know your cast of characters then. Hopefully, you would know them if you met them in the street. I would certainly know Jenna Warwick and Paul Shepherd, the main protagonists in Maker of Footprints. Sometimes, I wonder what I would do if I saw them across the road. Here is the beginning of Jenna and Paul’s story:

“Meeting him was easy. It was knowing him that burned bone. There are twists in fate; chances and turns; long straights in the flat lands and winding roads in mountains. In later years, Jenna Warwick traced the beginning of the rest of her life back to this conversation. Here, now, in her own house, in her own living room. If she had known and turned this way instead of that way, would she? No. A hundred times No.”

I could not have written that until I had been with them on their long and difficult journey. I would not have acquired the emotional knowledge to express the sentiment in it.

More lessons from experience later! I’d be interested to know if any of the points I’ve made strike a chord with you.

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